Monday, January 24, 2022

Why our Thinking is often Wrong: A Review of Richard E. Nisbett's Book

Me holding up and reading the book Thinking A Memoir by Richard E. Nisbett

Thinking is something that some people shun and do not touch with a ten-foot pole, while others fully and often willingly immerse themselves in it. While we expect and assume writers, poets, artists, and professors to be almost always lost in thought and reverie, there are many who would try to fill their time and schedules to such an extent that thought becomes unthinkable, impossible, or at least, impractical and unfeasible. Some seem to be afraid of thinking about things and would rather not enter or face this fascinating and fantastic realm.

At the same time, we often assume that we instinctively know how to think. Maybe we think that we are simply born with it, or we may believe it to be a sign and manifestation of intelligence, which we may or may not think we possess. At any rate, we might conceive of thinking as dance moves, meaning you either got rhythm, or you don’t. For others, it may not necessarily be the mechanism itself, but they may complain or be worried about the content or the lack thereof. They may simply be afraid to look into the recesses of the mind where something scary and revealing may be lurking and waiting to be unleashed.

For me, thinking has been part of my life as far back as I can remember. Especially during adolescence, I was prone to thinking about - for lack of a better word - the human condition, and so I was drawn to and fascinated by the fields of philosophy and psychology apart from film and literature. I would often find myself creating situations and scenarios for upcoming books and novels, but all this time, I took thinking for granted and did not question or analyze it. Not only did I believe others to enjoy the act of thinking as much as I did, but I was also not aware of the weaknesses and fallibility of the thinking process itself.

Enter Richard E. Nisbett’s book “thinking: A Memoir.” When I was offered the opportunity to review this magnificent book by the renowned social and cognitive psychologist, I did not have to give it a second thought but acted immediately (thank you, Kelsey, for bringing the book to my attention!). I do not mind nor regret my decision to read and think about this book as it is not only thoughtful but also insightful, while also filling in many gaps of my knowledge and understanding. As a matter of fact, it supplied me with important new fresh perspectives of seeing and understanding this seemingly crazy world that we are currently living in.

First and foremost, our thinking is flawed and prone to error. Naturally, this has an evolutionary purpose and is meant to enhance our protection and survival. Our heuristic pragmatic brain is calibrated to err on the side of caution. In most cases and situations, we may forgive and be even thankful for our brain to underplay logic; it would give priority to logical fallacies as it would overplay and trump threat and negativity over other things. When a well-trodden path that has always served you well suddenly poses a life-threatening threat to one of your close contacts, you start thinking twice about it and may avoid it like the plague.

For this reason, we instinctively and often unconsciously prioritize negative information over positive ones. A single plane crash may in fact rattle us and instill a subsequent fear of or at least preoccupation about flying. As Nisbett points out, many of us have the natural proclivity to not fully grasp and understand statistics alongside the implications, connections, and inferences related to large numbers and probability. Our brain is too focused on salient and dramatic information as opposed to verifiable facts and numbers. The media pounces on this human susceptibility and plays with our emotions for their own benefit. Although the information may not be false in and of itself, its presentation and its representation may become prone to misperceptions and misunderstandings.

Nowhere is this more apparent nowadays than with the topic of vaccines. We may hear that they are overall safe and effective but if a friend of a friend had an adverse reaction, we tend to falsely conclude that it is, as a rule, unsafe and not worth the risk. We would give more prevalence to anecdotal information and experiences over general trends and findings. As Nisbett himself puts it, “We’re too influenced by a little data and too unimpressed by a lot of data.”

As we can see and easily imagine, this type of fallacy can backfire in various situations. And yet, critical thinking is something that can be taught, trained, and learned. Nisbett found that students manage to learn and apply these thinking skills and that this has been of great benefit to their daily life and their decision-making overall. 

But again, many of us are naturally prone to making errors in our thought processes. It is not necessarily due to a lack of information or a lack of intelligence, but it can come down to how information and events are framed and presented to us. A medical doctor who is offered a medication that has a 90% survival rate for patients would not hesitate to accept it, while another who is told that it has a 10% death rate would refuse the same life-saving medication. It is a matter of clarity, perspective, and awareness of such underlying phenomena that can help us make more informed and wiser decisions for ourselves as well as for others.

Another issue of potential concern is the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute our own actions and misdeeds to external situations and circumstances, such as “I was late because of traffic”. At the same time, we tend to attribute the actions of others almost exclusively to personal characteristics, failings as well as flaws of their personality, such as “she was late because she is an unpunctual person”. Combining the two trains of thought, we can see how stereotypes influence our perception and vice versa. Taking and seeing people’s behaviors completely out of context, adding one’s own biased thinking into the mix, which is often based on small samples of personal experiences and anecdotal information, and then framing it in a way that would confirm our own misguided beliefs and prejudices can explain how racial, sexual as well as other types of discrimination are propagated in various ways and manners.

We all have preconceived notions, biases, and judgments that need to be put to the test, examined, and re-examined on a continuous basis. Much of the information may be out of date, simply wrong, or based on misinformation and misunderstanding. In fact, even science is not safe from it as findings are generally not absolute and eternal; instead, they often change and need to be modified. For centuries, Newton’s laws were absolute and universal, and then, Einstein brought us relativity. We have been told that coffee is bad for us, and then, we are presented with various health benefits. And nowhere become these fluctuations, adjustments, and modifications more apparent than during the Covid crisis. The whole situation is akin to scientists trying to predict where a plane is going without knowing its destination while at the same time trying to fix and repair it in mid-flight.

But let us return to our individual examples of how our unique personal ways of thinking affect our thoughts and judgments. Another important factor is the influence of culture in terms of our ways of thinking, understanding, and even our problem-solving skills. Nisbett provides fascinating ground-breaking research and insight into how Westerners and Asians have fundamental differences in their thinking and perception of the world. In fact, Eastern and Western minds handle cognitive processes in different ways and at different locations in their structurally different brains!

For instance, the Eastern mind is prone to see, interpret, and think in holistic, curvilinear, and circular ways, while the Western mind prefers logical, compartmentalized, and linear thinking. It comes as little surprise that science with its quest for absolute and universal rules and laws appealed to and flourished more in western parts of the world. The Asian worldview is less interested in permanence but sees reality as a process with a world in constant flux, which is driven by continuous change. In holistic thinking, nothing is nor can be isolated or independent, but everything is interconnected.

This affects each individual psychologically as well. A Western mind would prefer to think of themselves as an individual self and agent, while the Eastern mind would see themselves in relation to others. In fact, as Nisbett puts it, interdependence requires attention to people, while independence primarily focuses on one’s own goals and plans. In other words, Westerners tend to define themselves as separate agents and zone into their salient features while Asians prefer to define themselves via their connections and relationships to others.

In a study, Americans and Japanese were shown underwater scenes and were told to report back on what they had seen. In fact, the Japanese reported 60 percent more information about the environment, such as rocks, plants, and small animals, whereas Americans tend to focus more on salient features and be less interested in the surroundings.

In another study, which you can incidentally try out and experiment with friends and family members, subjects were given various word triplets, such as monkey, panda, and banana, and were asked to tell which two objects went together. It turned out that Asians were more likely to say that the monkey goes with the banana because monkeys eat bananas, whereas Americans were more likely to say the monkey goes with the panda because both are animals.

In fact, my Mexican-born wife chose the banana, while my Canadian son, not unsurprisingly to me, chose the panda. Mexicans have a tendency to see themselves as intimately and collectively connected to their family and society, while Canadians prefer to see and define themselves as separate individual entities. But before we jump to conclusions here, we should keep in mind the concept of confirmation bias, namely the tendency to look for evidence to support a given theory at the expense of looking for or accepting evidence that would tend to refute it. We can also add the current temptation of getting comfortably settled in our very own echo chambers of sorts.

Yet, all things considered, I think it becomes clear and evident that we should not take thinking for granted. Not only does it affect self-knowledge and our own personal lives but also many lives around us, and beyond. To truly accept and understand others, we need to empathize with them and put ourselves in their shoes. 

No matter who we are or where we come from, I think empathy with a healthy sense of curiosity should round out our perception of ourselves as well as of others. Finally, we should keep this in mind: Although there are individual and cultural differences and even individual differences and variations within the cultures themselves, it is important not to lose sight of these facts and to give them some serious thought and reflection. And to improve upon your own thinking skills, you can pick up a copy of this excellent book and/or sign up for a free online course (I know I have) available at Coursera created by the author of this book himself entitled Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age!